County eyes possible changes to clusters

There seems a consensus on Sussex County Council that the Cluster Development Ordinance (enacted August 2004) may have a few loopholes that need closing. Council enacted a moratorium on new cluster developments last week and continued the discussion on how to close that loophole at the Dec. 6 council meeting.

As it stands for developers already in the pipeline, lots can be as small as 7,500 square feet, but the project must show a minimum 30 percent open space, overall.

This basically created a subset of Residential Planned Communities (RPCs) — but unlike RPCs, developers don’t need council’s approval to move forward. Cluster subdivision is by right, so it becomes a matter of obtaining site plan approvals at the county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission.

Recently, council has seen at least one appeal from a developer who felt the P&Z commissioners had overstepped their jurisdiction on the matter. Commissioners considered this clustered subdivision significantly less well-designed than the standard model.

Sometimes, these homes weren’t necessarily clustered into quaint, village-like enclaves, separated by undisturbed areas of natural splendor, as perhaps some had envisioned. Sometimes, they were clustered by the hundreds around lands set aside for community wastewater treatment or stormwater management.

Council Member George Cole attacked the definition of open space soon after council first started considering the clustering ordinance, last year (and has maintained that stance). Developers would have to set aside much of this acreage anyway, in accordance with other regulations, he’s noted.

Council Member Vance Phillips has contested that view, standing by the county’s current definitions of open space and suggesting cluster development had indeed fostered greater preservation thereof.

However, all council members could agree the ordinance had indeed allowed developers to fit additional housing units onto a piece of land. This has been characterized as an unintended consequence, but where council goes from here remains to be seen.

Cole would like an end to cluster development outside the development districts (inside or near town centers, for instance).

Council Member Dale Dukes has suggested cluster development remain an option throughout the county, but that developers submit to a 25 percent reduction to gross density before calculating how many houses they can build (in accordance with the zoning on that particular parcel).

This would make cluster subdivisions a little more like RPCs, where developers have to deduct roads and road rights-of-way before calculating density.

Phillips, however, went another way (as he’d hinted he would one week earlier).

His proposed amendment to the Cluster Development Ordinance would create density bonuses for developers, if they chose to build in town centers or developing areas (including the Environmentally Sensitive Developing Area, which encompasses much of the southeastern corner of the state).

There, Phillips suggested the county offer maximum densities of up to four units per acre, rather than the two units per acre permitted by right in Agricultural-Residential (AR) lands.

County engineering had based its assumptions for sewer capacity on four units per acre in these areas, Phillips said, and this incentive encouraged development as per Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s Livable Delaware initiative.

It wouldn’t be a giveaway though, he said — developers who wished to avail themselves of this option would have to pay for it. Phillips suggested “for the purpose of land preservation a development fee equal to $10,000 per unit” (from the draft amendment).

These development fees would funnel into the Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT), which would then recommend land purchases to the council (as it does currently).

This was merely the introduction to the matter and council will still need to hold a formal public hearing on Phillips’ amendment, but a bit of a debate ensued anyway.

The amendment’s synopsis noted encouragement of “the preservation of the agricultural industry and agricultural lands…” and Cole objected to what he considered a great cost in quality of life for residents of the eastern county already under pressure from ongoing development.

“It sounds to me, Mr. Phillips, as if you’re shifting the burden to coastal Sussex County,” he said. “You’re looking at the coastal areas as a cash cow.”

As Phillips conceded, “agricultural” was probably not the best operative term. “I was thinking this money could be used to purchase all manner of easements,” he said.

Phillips said he intended to work with County Planner Rick Kautz to make some changes there, before council reconvenes after the holidays. Cole remained unconvinced.

SCLT Board Member Dennis Forney stepped forward in support of Phillips’ amendment. “I hear what Mr. Cole is saying — I see that every day as well,” Forney noted.

However, he cited some figures for total undeveloped acreage around the county — 300,000 or 350,000 acres of developable AR land (not including existing farmland, wetlands, etc.).

Even without any pro-development zoning changes, those lands could theoretically accommodate enough residential development to house another million people, Forney said.

Perhaps daunting, but he suggested limiting development through governmental regulation wasn’t the way to go. “We don’t take zoning rights — we buy them,” he said.

But farmers weren’t as interested in selling development rights as they once were, Forney said. He characterized Phillips’ amendment a good way to “harness a thriving economy” and conserve open lands without chilling that economy.

“With a thriving economy, you can do things,” Forney said. “Without a thriving economy you can’t do anything except throw your hands in the air.”

In other business, Finance Director David Baker and Information Systems Director Eddie Sparpaglione collaborated on a presentation about the county’s new-tech method of conducting bond auctions.

The county recently refinanced $18.5 million in bonds, saving $2.2 million in interest over the next 20 years, Baker explained. The bidding took place online, coordinated by the Grant Street Group organization (

A handful of competing entities submitted a total of 13 bids — UBS came close, but couldn’t edge out Wachovia’s early and aggressive offering.

And finally, under grant requests, Phillips awarded $5,000 in community development monies to South Bethany, to assist with the town’s pending town hall/police station project.